I was seven years old when, after several dead ends and misdiagnoses, a neurologist at Chicago’s Rush-Presbyterian-St. Lukes Medical Center told my parents I had Tourette Syndrome. In a way, it was a relief: Doctors and teachers had tried to explain my compulsive throat-clearing, grunting, and gesticulating as everything from a sore throat to evidence I had been abused. When my tics were at their worst, other kids launched pointed glares my way in class while teachers made a point of pausing their lessons to ask me if I needed to go get a drink from the water fountain. Tourettes, I thought, wrapped up that part of me into a neat little package, something I could point to and explain to the world that I didn’t have any control over my tics, not really. But of course, the world has never been that rational.
Disability, as the modern wisdom goes, is a social construct. I don’t think there’s any condition that illustrates that as powerfully as Tourette Syndrome does. People who have Tourettes are as intelligent and as grounded in reality as those who don’t, and, apart from the occasional aching chest from forcing out a barrage of vocal tics or chafed skin from performing the same gesture repeatedly, we don’t generally suffer any physical ill effects from it. Instead, our illness is measured in its social inconvenience to others—the meetings we interrupt, the library patrons we distract, or, for the 10% or so of cases with coprolalia, the swear words we blurt out in public.
14 years ago, with the release of the episode “Le Petit Tourette,” South Park got that. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s one of, if not the only, worthwhile pieces of media ever made about having Tourette Syndrome. If you’re surprised to hear me call the show that once made an entire episode about its 10-year-old protagonists shoving tampons up their asses an icon of understanding and sensitivity, you’re not alone. When the Tourette Syndrome Association found out that Trey Parker and Matt Stone were making an episode about the disorder, they released a statement preemptively saying they fully expected it to be “offensive and insensitive.” What actually aired, however, was surprisingly touching, not to mention gut-busting.
If you haven’t seen “Le Petit Tourette,” it goes something like this: Cartman is in a toy store when he encounters Thomas, a boy with Tourettes who uncontrollably shouts obscenities, but is greeted with acceptance from the staff and other shoppers after his mother explains his condition. (Meanwhile Thomas, with all eyes on him, is begging her to leave.) Inspired, Cartman decides to fake having Tourettes because he believes it will let him say whatever he wants with no consequences, no matter how offensive, crude, or antisemitic. He manages to fool a doctor, his parents, his teachers, and, at one point, Chris Hansen of To Catch a Predator, but immediately gets made by Kyle.
However, when Kyle tries to tell the kids at a local Tourettes support group—who have a wide variety of different tics—that Cartman is faking the disease “for fun,” they all assume that he’s the one who doesn’t understand.
“Fun? You want to know about fun?” Thomas says. “Going to public places, knowing you’re going to make a fool of yourself, embarrass your parents.”
I lost count of how many times I had this conversation over the years. A lot of people assume that Tourettes functions like a pass to violate society’s taboos without consequence. The reality is that there is no such thing. People with Tourette Syndrome get kicked off of buses because their tics sound like slurs and cursed out in movie theaters for disturbing other patrons. I’ve been able to count on the support and patience of fantastic teachers, coworkers, and teammates in my life who have normalized, or at least tolerated, my involuntary noises and twitches. On the other hand, I also regularly get asked, even after explaining Tourettes at length, if I could please just be polite and try not to tic.
But if people don’t understand Tourettes, who can blame them when it’s been represented so poorly? The problem isn’t that comedy has treated Tourettes as a joke—I’m not above laughing at myself—it’s that comedy has turned it into a shitty, paper-thin one. It’s Curb Your Enthusiasm’s third season, where Larry David hires a chef who turns out to have Tourette Syndrome (you can tell because he swears) and casually discusses firing him over his disability before standing up in front of his restaurant’s opening night crowd and swearing along with the chef in what’s supposed to be an act of solidarity. The sum total of what we learn about the chef is that he has a compulsive dislike for salmon, capers, and olives and, well, he swears. When Tourette Syndrome is just plot-device wallpaper like that, is it any wonder that viewers don’t get it?
South Park fucking got it. Unlike other shows that portrayed Tourettes from the outside looking in, “Le Petit Tourette” actually took the time to ask, what’s it like to live your life with a disease that most people just don’t understand, or care to? The episode’s replete with details that anyone who has Tourettes will recognize immediately, from the rushed way Thomas talks, like he’s trying get a complete thought out before a tic attack interrupts him, to the poster in the background of one scene showing Tourettes as the middle of a Venn diagram labeled “Tics,” “OCD,” and “ADHD,” a common combo of disorders sometimes called “full-blown Tourettes.” After the episode aired, even the TSA agreed that it had been “surprisingly well-researched,” though it still griped about the excessive focus on swearing, a relatively rare symptom of the disorder.
And after all that, “Le Petit Tourette” is still South Park. It’s unafraid to find the shock humor in two young boys derailing a TV broadcast by catfishing a stream of pedophiles, all of whom off themselves in front of the studio audience when they see Chris Hansen waiting for them, or a grown man periodically interrupting his monologue about tolerance to shout “piss out my ass!” Even when the jokes take a crack at people like me, however, I don’t mind. Sometimes a good punchline is the best way to make people look.